Southern Britain: Birds and History Aug 01—12, 2005
Posted by Peter Roberts
2005 was our 9th year of operating this unique and fun tour. Although it runs to a tried and tested, and very successful formula, no one year is the same as another because of its built-in flexibility. Staying in one location all ten nights, and not having to pack and repack on this 50-50 mix of birds and historical visits seems to hit the right spot for our participants. There is plenty of scope for individuals to call the shots, indicating what sort of mix they?d like, how long they want to be in the field each day, places they?d like to visit—even what they want to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Having said that, most folks are generally happy to go with the flow and ask for my advice about what works best based on many years of experience in this area.
So off we went—in constantly good, warm, and sunny weather—straight into some remarkable history at the huge complex of Hampton Court Palace, a short drive from meeting up at Heathrow airport in London. This must surely be one of England?s greatest buildings, full of references to Henry VIII and later monarchs, and all set in immaculately kept ornate gardens. As we strolled the grounds, our birding account was opened with such exotica as Mandarin Duck, Egyptian Goose, and Rose-ringed Parakeet—all introduced species, but with large viable feral populations. Another grand historical venue included Hever Castle. I arranged a totally exclusive and private tour for our group before the public was let in. This is a real bonus—being shown in an unhurried way through this picturesque castle full of history and priceless heirlooms, paintings, and furniture. It is a small, ?cozy? castle, beautifully restored by the Astor family during the 20th century, and with immense amounts of historical value as the family home over 400 years ago to Ann Boleyn—Henry VIII?s second wife, and the first to lose her head in the process! Here, too, is a lovely intertwined mix of birding and history, with immaculate nesting Great Crested Grebes on the ornamental ponds and Eurasian Nuthatches in the beautiful surrounding parklands.
The diversity of the history of this area is staggering, action-packed with everything from the Roman Invasions right up to the Industrial Revolution. But I often get the impression that it isn?t only the grander sites that impress those who join this tour. It is often the unexpected delight of traveling through such classically quaint countryside that pleases every bit as much as the spectacular. Driving down winding country lanes, calling into picturesque unspoilt villages with ancient churchyards and half timbered houses dating back centuries gives as much pleasure.
Some days can be fully historical, some fully birding—especially our annual visit to Minsmere, a fine coastal wetland reserve where our hopes are especially pinned on sighting one of Britain?s rarest breeding birds, Great Bittern. We were not disappointed this year, with two separate flight views of this highly secretive bird as it traversed its dense reedbed haunts. Here, too, were nesting Mediterranean Gulls and Dartford Warblers—some of the rarest nesters in the United Kingdom—offering great looks.
Another well-established birding highlight has become a private visit to a friend?s bird-banding station. This is a good example of where the flexible approach is so important. I keep all options open, working other parts of our agenda around a visit here after listening to the weather forecast and arranging the visit only when everything looks set. We had a fine time on this tour, with the chance to see a wide range of those wonderfully obscure-looking warblers up-close in the hand after banding. Especially lucky this year was the privilege of close encounters with the scarce Bearded Reedling. And what better way to round off an early morning start at this site than with a historical visit to the Battle of Hastings, where the last successful invasion of Britain took place in 1066?
With various excellent birding sites to check for migrant shorebirds and late nesters, the birder?s hotline to check for rarities, day trips to London and France, and so many diverse historical sites to choose from, we invariably finish our tour knowing there is so much more of high interest to justify a return visit. Indeed, some participants have repeated this tour and, because of our flexible way of organizing events, I have always managed to work in new places and birds to show them.